When outsiders think of Quebec, they often fall back on the old stereotype of a province divided between the “two solitudes” of the English and the French.
But this formulation ignores the degree to which the province’s oldest European populations have become much more intertwined in recent decades. It also erases the reality that in geographically large parts of the province, First Nations make up the majority of the population.
This is true for the Anglican diocese of Quebec as well: hundreds of kilometres north of Quebec City lies the Naskapi community of Kawawachikamach, on the Quebec-Labrador border. It is one of the diocese’s largest parishes, with a membership of over 100.
Due to its remoteness from the centre of gravity in the south, Kawawachikamach is a marginalized parish in what is, in some ways, already a marginalized diocese. For this very reason, it may also be a place where new approaches to Indigenous Anglican ministry can be tested and forged, say church leaders.
When the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) and the national church’s Indigenous ministries laid out plans for self-determination at the November 2016 meeting of Council of General Synod (CoGS), they emphasized the need to come up with new models for training Indigenous leaders. They said they were considering testing new models in a handful of Indigenous communities across the country before attempting more widespread changes.
Coadjutor bishop of Quebec Bruce Myers asked at that time if Kawawachikamach might be considered as one of them.
“I’m hoping I can work with [National Indigenous Bishop] Mark MacDonald and others to see what Indigenous self-determination might look like for Indigenous Anglicans in the diocese of Quebec,” he says in an interview.
Historically, most of the priests at Kawawachikamach have been non-Indigenous people from the southern parts of the province. While the most recent priest, the Rev. Martha Spence, bucked the trend as an Indigenous woman, she was still an outsider to the community, hailing as she does from Manitoba’s Tataskweyak Cree Nation.
The minister currently in charge of the parish and its church, St. John’s, is the Rev. Silas Nabinicaboo, a locally trained deacon who has been active in the church for years as a translator.
Although Nabinicaboo is the ecclesiastical leader, having many of the same duties as a priest, when he speaks about his ministry it quickly becomes clear that in his community, the elders play a huge role in providing leadership in the church.
“They are the ones who keep the language going…who keep us going in our faith,” he says, noting that preserving the language and keeping the church vital are closely related activities.
In particular, Nabinicaboo praised the work of Joe Guanish, an elder and churchwarden with a deep knowledge of Naskapi who has often filled in as a preacher when the need arose, in addition to serving as a lay reader.
With the help of elders like Guanish, Nabinicaboo has played an outsized role in linking the preservation of the Naskapi language to the ministry of the church. For nearly 20 years, he has been part of a group working on a translation of the Bible into Naskapi. The New Testament in Naskapi was published in 2007, and translators are currently working their way through the Old Testament.
“When the language dies, the nation dies,” he says. “It is important for us to keep our language and teach our young people.”
Services at St. John’s are in Naskapi, but Nabinicaboo says that some of the younger members of the congregation have difficulty reading the Naskapi syllabics, and so an English text is provided alongside.
When asked whether there is a desire in his community for a greater degree of self-determination, Nabinicaboo says he sees little interest among his parishioners for any kind of formal separation from the diocese of Quebec.
According to Nabinicaboo, the diocese “is a big help,” and he is hopeful that Myers will be supportive of the parish’s work.
He notes that he, like many other Indigenous priests in northern communities, is serving on a non-stipendiary basis. And because he is not licensed to administer all the sacraments, his parish often goes for long periods of time without a regular service of the Eucharist.
Myers says the diocese hasn’t yet found a solution to this problem, and hopes that the work ACIP and Indigenous Ministries are doing will provide a way to raise leaders within the community who can offer sacramental ministry.
But Myers notes that decisions about self-determination and leadership training would need to be made by the community itself.
“I don’t want to impose ready-made southern solutions,” he says. “I have a lot to learn about how Indigenous communities conduct their lives in general, knowing that there is no one way.”